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Mask Revolt Relic of Tragic Past

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

Photo credit: Sergio Flores/Getty Images. A woman protests COVID-19 public-health restrictions in Austin, Tex. in April.

During the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic, a group of individuals who were so opposed to covering their faces in public came together in San Francisco to form what they called, “The Anti-Mask League.

They argued that being forced to wear masks impeded their civil liberties, while their fellow citizens were dropping dead all around them. Sound familiar?

Today, the anti-mask forces aren’t centered in San Francisco, but they aren’t hard to find. Memorial Day weekend videos across the country plainly show Americans from coast to coast flouting mask-wearing recommendations, opting to party in blissful ignorance of any impending consequences of their actions.

The point of wearing a mask, experts say, isn’t to protect yourself. It’s to protect everyone else from you and your germs. When I go out, which is rare, I actually wear two masks; one of the traditional variety and an additional bandana wrapped around my face. Why do I do this? Because I respect those around me. It’s called having consideration.

When you refuse to wear a mask during a public health crisis, in which a potentially lethal virus can easily be spread via droplets coming from your mouth, you are doing the equivalent of sticking your middle finger into the faces of every person you encounter. You are essentially saying, ‘I don’t care about you or your loved ones, because your health and their lives aren’t as important as my personal comfort.’

When I was a kid, I remember when people scoffed at seat-belt laws, because they supposedly curtailed civil liberties. How many lives have seat belts saved?

And your civil liberties end when your actions are clearly putting others in danger. Nobody thinks prohibiting individuals from driving after consuming copious amounts of alcohol curbs anyone's inalienable rights.

What started as a few fringe protests has exploded into a mass case of pandemic fatigue. People, it seems, have in disturbingly large numbers given up on the most simple safety measures like wearing a mask, staying home and physically distancing themselves from others. When given a choice between staying safe at home or heading out to Raising Cane's for some tenders, we as a society have decided that we're willing to risk it all for some of that tasty chicken.

In Riverside County, Calif., where I live, Public Health Officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser undoubtedly saved lives by quickly instituting emergency health orders that went above and beyond the strict measures set in place by Gov. Gavin Newsom. When Kaiser extended those orders in late April, which included the mandatory wearing of masks through June 19, five politicians unanimously overrode him nine days later.

What is the point of having a public health officer if you are just going to ignore him?

Experts say the worst could be yet to come, with a second wave of the virus likely to hit during the fall-and-winter cold-and-flu season. That’s exactly what happened in 1918-19.

More than 100,000 people have died so far in the current COVID-19 crisis, and given many governments irresponsible laissez-faire policies, that number is certain to rise exponentially. By the end of the Spanish Flu pandemic, an estimated 675,000 Americans died, a casualty number higher than any war in U.S. history.

Authorities tried to crack down on the anti-mask crowd in early 20th-century San Francisco, making hundreds of arrests. But the anti-maskers soon got their way, and San Francisco became one of the nation’s worst-hit cities.

This time around, San Francisco's government and citizens have been a model for others to emulate. It’s unlikely there will be a repeat of The Anti-Mask League there. Unfortunately, the rest of the country is more than picking up the slack in fighting this imagined persecution, the repercussions of which will sadly and tragically become clear in the weeks ahead.


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